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Aerobic vs. Anaerobic: Which is Better for Your Body?

For some of us, exercise is a daily thing, non-negotiable. We look forward to the 20-minute, 45-minute or hour-long reprieve. It’s a sacred routine — a limited opportunity to leave life’s stressors and responsibilities at the door. On an average day, we spin, jog, lift weights, practice yoga or power through HIIT (high-intensity interval training). For others, movement is more of a lifestyle — it’s a way to socialize, try out new athletic gear and post about trendy studios on social media. That said, for a significant percentage of Americans, exercise is hardly a priority.

The Importance of Exercise

Plenty of research, however, validates the importance of movement (and sweat). From building lean muscle mass, to naturally detoxing the body to supporting a healthy cardiovascular system, moving one’s body has imperative health benefits. Additionally, the endorphin release — during and after exercise — brings emotional benefits as well. Many of us have experienced the mental clarity, mood boost, and energy surge after a vigorous workout, functional training session or brisk walk around the block. But not all exercise is created equal. Depending on your health and wellness goals (as well as your body type), certain forms of movement are more advantageous than others. A look at the differences between aerobic versus anaerobic exercise may help explain why some approaches can yield better results than others.

Benefits and Types of Aerobic Exercise

When we think about exercise, we typically think aerobic. In aerobic exercise, the oxygen you breathe is adequate to sustain a metabolic process that supplies energy. For most people, low-to-moderate movement is generally aerobic. During this type of exercise, there is enough oxygen present to support this metabolic mode; in other words, oxygen — in itself — is sufficient to supply your muscles’ energy demands.

Aerobic exercise is light activity you can sustain over long periods of time, such as jogging, swimming, yoga or walking. For some, even marathon running can be considered aerobic exercise. If you enjoy classes at the gym, think hot yoga and Zumba (dance class). Cardio machines, cross-country skiing, paddle boarding, kayaking, and hiking can all be forms of aerobic exercise too. Overall, aerobic exercise increases your endurance and cardiac health.

Benefits and Types of Anaerobic Exercise

On the other hand, anaerobic exercise is without the presence of oxygen. When you exert yourself at 84% (or above) of your max heart rate, anaerobic respiration takes place. Because oxidative respiration is not adequate to supply the energy needed for this more intense activity, your muscles begin to break down sugars; this results in a higher lactic acid production across the body. Unlike aerobic exercise — centered around endurance activities — anaerobic exercise comprises brief, strength-based exercises. These intense bursts of activity are typically a faster way to target fat burning, along with helping you gain lean muscle mass.

Between sprinting, jumping, plyometrics and HIIT (high-intensity interval training), anaerobic exercise is easy to do both at home and at the gym. Many fitness classes — those rooted in cardio/strength training — are anaerobic. They’re geared toward giving you maximum fat-burning benefits. In essence, the higher you get your heart rate, the more likely you’ll be in an anaerobic state. Vigorously lifting weights can be anaerobic, as well as a heart-pumping kickboxing session.

Combining Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise

Many forms of movement give you the best of both worlds. Typically, high-intensity spin classes are a combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. While steady-state riding is aerobic, sprinting for short intervals is anaerobic. If you love to dance, sign up for a jazzercise/Zumba class at your gym — based on the tempo of the music, you’ll do cardio (aerobic exercise) and strength training (anaerobic). For outdoor junkies, trail running, mountain climbing and swimming provide opportunities for both aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Regardless of the type of activity you choose, any movement is better than no movement. Boosting your metabolism, gaining lean muscle and disconnecting from life’s stressors is just one power walk, spin class or weight-lifting session away.

Edie Horstman, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach.


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